Benedictine Vows Part 2: Stability

In my previous article, I discussed how the Benedictine vow of conversatio morum addressed the idea that change is the only constant in the universe.  If change is constant, then we can strive to change our lives so that they might reflect more clearly God’s image in each of us.  But is change really the only constant in the universe?  

Consider eternal truths and laws of nature.  Do they change?  On our planet, drop a pen and it will always fall to the floor.  If we put our hands on a hot stove, we will get burned.  If we violate one of God’s commandments, our consciences will be pricked.  If we reject God, He will still love us.  When we ask God to forgive us, He does -  again, and again, and again - “seventy times seven,” as Jesus says! (Matthew 18:22)  Some things just are, and this is what St. Benedict’s vow of stability reflects - that we are grounded in, and may even allow ourselves to be formed by, unchanging and universal truths written on the human soul.

As we previously acknowledged, the riddle of change and permanence is nothing new.  In ancient Greece, Heraclitus described the universe as ever changing; to him, permanence was an illusion.  However, not all agreed with him.  As in modern times, there was a diversity of thought.

Before we turn to St. Benedict’s vow of “stability,” let us take a look at Parmenides, a younger contemporary of Heraclitus.  Parmenides is “the philosopher of permanence.”  (I teach my students to remember the difference between the two: Parmenides and “permanence” begin with the letter “p”).  Parmenides is Heraclitus’ polar opposite: unlike Hercaclitus where “all is change,” for Parmenides, change is an illusion because “all is one.”  His argument can be surmised as follows:  “What is cannot not not be, and what is not is not anything at all; what is cannot pass away, and what is not cannot come from what is not.”  Therefore, change is impossible.  In his view, sense perception cannot be trusted to reveal truth; change and movement are nothing more than perceptions of reality that is changeless and permanent.  Parmenides’ philosophy distinguishes between “the way of truth” and “the way of opinion,” and it is not hard to guess which would be his idea of reality.

This brings us to St. Benedict and his vow of stability.  For all the chaos and violence in the world, certain things just persist.  We can find enduring joy in living in a world that is good, holy, beautiful and true - a world already redeemed by Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7).  The Benedictine vow of stability helps us open up to this underlying reality.  Benedictine monasteries rose up all over Europe just as Roman civilization began to collapse, and they were the places that preserved learning and cultivated erudition during these “Dark Ages.”  Countless generations of monks and nuns followed God’s call to live under the Rule of Benedict in an ordered and structured manner - in a life of stability equally balanced between “ora et labora” or “prayer and work.”  They did so in answer to His call that the Church might “pray without ceasing” (1st Thessalonians 5:1) so that the world might be sanctified, that all might be open and receptive to our unchanging and all merciful God.

A few metaphors can help us understand the Benedictine vow of stability.  A sailing vessel has sails and a keel.  If the vow of conversatio morum catches the wind in the sails, the vow of stability is the keel that keeps the ship from being blown sideways and provides the ballast that keeps the boat from capsizing.  Staying with the ship metaphor, one could also describe the vow of stability as the anchor of a ship within a safe harbor.

To use a different metaphor, Benedictine monasteries and our vow of stability provide a “field hospital” for the Church - a place where people overwhelmed by the pressures and burdens of everyday life might retreat from the world in order to to seek and encounter the God who is eternal and unchanging.  It is a great privilege to be able to provide such a place for those working in our nation’s capital who need the safe harbor of the monastery where the Divine Physician can heal wounds and restore one’s equilibrium.  

Some might rightly say, “well, don’t the Dominicans and Franciscans and countless other religious orders provide the same?”  Of course they do, and thanks be to God for the diversity of religious charisms in the Church!  However, as I explained to someone, when I was attending a Washington Nationals Baseball game during the  August gathering of the Catholic Beer Club, I had to leave the game at the top of the third inning to get back to the monastery in time to pray Vespers with my brothers.  Our mendicant brothers could easily have had their breviaries with them and invited people to join them by praying Vespers in their seats at the ballpark.  That is their role in sanctifying the world - to be with the people and witness to the joy of the gospel!  But that witness needs, behind the scenes, the backup of the Benedictines, with our vow of stability, reliably counted on to be in a fixed place at a fixed time every day of the year, year after year, century after century.

So, just as change is an evident and an ever present reality of human existence, so too, there are eternal and unchanging truths, revealed by an eternal and unchanging Creator who wrote the truths into the structure of the universe.  Through human reason we can ascertain such truths and by God’s grace be conformed by them.  As with Heraclitus’ change so to with Parmenides permanence; as with the vow of conversatio morum, so too, the vow of stability - the human condition experiences both opposing realities simultaneously.  It is difficult of course, even for a monk, to reconcile change and permanence within oneself, which brings to us to the final vow for our next discussion: the vow of obedience.

There's Something to be Said About Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

We all have our worst fears. And if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to obsess about them and let them dominate my life. It’s all too easy to instantly become negative and allow fears, worries and anxieties overpower our faith in the Lord’s plans for our lives. Or, even worse, we begin to suspect or blame God in the supposed unfolding of these problems that might not have even happened yet.

Fear is a human aspect and is something characters throughout salvation history have struggled with. Even when the Lord reaches out His hand and does amazing deeds, humanity is all too quick to forget God’s goodness, or become disillusioned and bitter. This plays out multiple times in the books of Exodus and Numbers, where the Israelites complain about the food the Lord has given them, about what they left behind in Egypt (besides slavery) and where the Lord is taking them.

When Moses leads the Israelites to the land “flowing with milk and honey,” they become consumed with fear because they’re afraid of the current inhabitants of the land, completely forgetting the extraordinary miracles that brought them out of slavery and sustained them on their journey:

“All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, the whole community saying to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or that here in the desert we were dead! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land only to have us fall by the sword? Our wives and little ones will be taken as booty. Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?…Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14: 2-4)

In response, the Lord allows exactly what they feared to happen, because they wouldn’t make space in their lives for God and because they refused to trust in Him. He withdraws and without God, their worst fears indeed take place:

“The Lord also said to Moses and Aaron: ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me?… By my life, says the Lord, I will do to you just what I have heard you say. Here in the desert shall your dead bodies fall….Your little ones, however, who you said would be taken as booty, I will bring in, and they shall appreciate the land you spurned. But as for you, your bodies shall fall here in the desert, here where your children must wander for forty years, suffering your faithlessness, till the last of you lies dead in the desert.” (Numbers 14: 26-29, 31-33)

The Israelites became victims to a self-fulfilling prophecy and their own fears indeed came into being because they refused to believe in the Lord, and the Lord allowed those fears to become actualized. It’s easy to look at this ancient example and scoff at their faithlessness, but the reality is that we make the same mistakes in our own lives time and time again. We also refuse to trust in the Lord because our fears seem more substantial than trusting that the Lord has our best interests in mind. When we encounter the unknown, we shy away and want to turn back to the familiar past, even when we bemoaned the tribulations of what we endured in the past. By making our fears tantamount, we push the Lord aside and sometimes invite what we feared to come into being.  At the same time, it can be incredibly difficult to trust in the Lord, especially when He’s calling us into the unknown, but a life without trust in the Lord as Christians is not a Christian life at all.

But, as the Lord has also done throughout salvation history, He’s always ready to reward faith and renew His promises, as we make our way through this desert of life to the Promised Land waiting for our souls at the end of our earthly days. As long as we hope, we can prevent these dark omens of the unknown from become dismal self-fulfilled prophecies.

Gaze: The Importance of Orienting Ourselves Toward Jesus

            I’ve heard it said, “Eyes are a window to the soul.” Nobody really knows who said it.  Some believe Shakespeare said it, but others claim biblical origins.  Regardless of the quote’s origin, most of us can attest to its meaning.  When we look at someone, especially for prolonged periods of time, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  In fact, a 1989 study was published in The Journal of Research in Personality called, “Looking and Loving:  The Effects of Mutual Gaze on Feelings of Romantic Love” found that “subjects induced to exchange mutual unbroken gaze for 2 minutes with a stranger of the opposite sex reported increased feelings of passionate love for each other.”  What does this mean for us?  It means that who we look at sparks passions, and love.  This might mean, that though sometimes the developments of feelings may have something to do with “love at first sight” more often than not it has to do with time spent in the presence of another person. 

            The gazes lovers share are not always passionate.  And those passionate moments are not the only times that love grows.  Sometimes, love grows in just an absent-minded stare over a bowl of cereal on Saturday morning or a glance upward while brushing your teeth.  Sometimes it’s just a subconscious awareness that another person is in the room with you while you check your e-mail, watch the news, or cook dinner.  In times like these, you may not even need words.  You just might glance over at that person, know that he or she is there, and relax into that presence.  If that person falls asleep, you might walk more quietly so as not to wake him/her.  The bottom line is that over time, we subconsciously change the direction of our lives, when we are in the presence of others, especially if that person is someone we love.  Try as we might, the more we look at someone, the harder it is to walk in a different direction than he/she does.

            The truth is that if we really love someone, and allow ourselves to be truly present to him/her regularly, it is difficult to really stray from that loving relationship.  It is one of the reasons why long distance relationships can be so difficult.  We crave that contact.  We crave just knowing that another person is in the room with us.

            What does this mean for my relationship with the Lord?  It means that looking at the Lord is vital to having any kind of a relationship with Him.  As Catholics, we can gaze upon the face of the Lord anytime we want in the Holy Eucharist.  If we just show up, for even a brief moment, we can gaze at the Lord, while He looks back at us (the way lovers do), to invoke passion. There may be times during this stare when we leave totally on fire with love for God.  Those days are like the clarity of a first kiss that causes your stomach to fill with butterflies.  It’s really easy to want to be in the presence of God when this happens.  It may happen for you.  It may not.  More often than not though, gazing at the Lord may feel more like doing required laundry with someone you love than dancing with your husband for the first time on your wedding day.  Luckily, the Lord does not need butterflies and lightening bolts to change your life and your heart, even though he may use them sometimes. Choosing to be in the Lord’s presence regularly makes it difficult to stray too far from His loving embrace even if you don’t feel or can’t understand it.  Just like it’s impossible to walk in a straight line for very long with your head turned to the right, it’s hard to walk away from the Lord if you regularly look at Him.  You might take some detours, but you can’t get too far off track if you just look at Him.  The gaze is powerful.  His gaze can change every sinner to a saint, sometimes actively, sometimes passively.  Somebody, somewhere once said that the “eyes are the windows to the soul.” What would happen, if you just looked at the Lord?

Work.

With Labor Day coming up, I thought this would be a good time to meditate on work- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Work in and of itself is good.  Consider these quotes by St. Pope John Paul II on work:

“Through all these surroundings, through my own experience of work, I boldly say that I learned the gospel anew.”

“Work is good for us. Through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed in a sense become more human.”

“The Son of God became man and worked with human hands…. So we know, not only by reason alone but through revelation, that through their work people share in the Creator’s work.”

“The church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…. The church considers it her duty to speak out on work…. It is her particular duty to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God…. This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all.”

But in the age of rampant workaholism and equally rampant arrested development, our approach to work can be troublesome.  We are living in a divided time.  We bemoan the same fault lines all the time- secularists vs. religious, leftists vs. right-wingers, millennials vs. just about everyone else.  But there might be a more devious debate raging that we don’t often notice:  the place of work in our lives.  Total work vs. the quietists.

A friend of mine recently drove to a small, middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska to watch the eclipse.  As he waited for the big moment he was floored.  The farmers’ machinery was buzzing along as if it was a normal day.  Cars were bustling on the highway.  People were working everywhere.  Then the total eclipse came and there was silence for a full two minutes.  Then as soon as the sun peaked out a little bit the whir of engines began again.  He couldn’t believe that workers couldn’t pause even a full five minutes to appreciate the phenomenon.  This is a society of total work.

I heard another story about a wealthy man from China who endured weeks of torture for housing a secret Catholic parish in his house.  The authorities interrupted a mass going on in his house and he rushed the congregation and the priest out before they could get caught.  Throughout all that torture he never gave up the name of the priest.  The authorities let him go and he immigrated to America.  He lived the American dream, opened his own restaurant, and started to see it thrive a bit.  He put in long, hard hours. Understandably his daily mass attendance wavered, but incredibly a few years into his business venture he had completely lapsed in his practice of the faith.  The speaker telling this story came to this conclusion:  what torture could not drive out of a man the American culture did.  Torture could not cause this man to become an apostate, but our American work ethic did.  And we applaud stories like his all the time.  This is a society of total work.

But at the same time we all know people who are so offended at not receiving a promotion every couple of years or a raise every month or so.  They aren’t rewarded for just showing up and they take offense.  Instead of keeping their noses down, working harder, and earning their raises and promotions they go off to another job.  They don’t learn and improve, they escape, so they can better validate their own opinions of the injustice done to them.  They won’t confront their laziness. This is the society of quietism.

I remember buying my first iPhone my senior year of college and purchasing a 2 gig data plan.  The salesmen assured me that I would never need 2 full gigs.  That was crazy.  No one used their phone that much.  Three years later I saw a video with the statistic that the average American will spend four full calendar year's worth of time on their phone in a lifetime.  Four wasted years!  We all basically die four years early.  It takes time off of our lives, because that’s not life.  This is the society of quietism.

Total work- meaning calculated by hours work, sweat poured out, goals achieved, productivity goals made.  It is a frantic work from sun up to sundown until utterly exhausted, the workers collapse in a heap.  Their state is constantly activity and equally constant exhaustion.  Even, maybe especially, Christian workers are inundated with this philosophy, but it becomes even more assiduous with the illusion of the cross of Christ adorning it- the heresy of good works.  Activism pushes Christ off the throne of their hearts.  There’s a constant sense of anxiety in the worker's mind.  Am I working hard enough?  Should I be doing something else?  I should, what else should I be doing?  Who is working harder than me?  Who notices?  It goes on and on.

Quietism- a passive withdrawn attitude or policy toward the world or worldly affairs.  The quietists are content to sit on their phones, tune out from outward reality, and in the Christian sense, to think that this is living on a deep level.  They fly by life, expecting to somehow be absorbed into greatness without lifting a finger.  These are tourists, the people who believe if they read a mountaineer's blog that they are somehow mountaineers themselves or if they read up on leadership practices that they are somehow a great leader.  They’re not a people of sweat, but a people marked with deep anxiety that their lives may be wasting away because they haven’t achieved what they want with their lives.  

These two profiles of course aren’t the only ones in our society, but they are two dominating strains.  When they meet it is toxic.  Judgement, complaining, guilt-tripping, backbiting, societal pressures, etc. abound.  

I’m sure, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all identify with thoughts, opinions, and feelings from both aisles.

Invitations.

Truth be told, I love an invitation to celebrate with anyone who is seeking to join the church. As a cradle Catholic, sometimes I envy the experience of those who have an impactful, dramatic conversion story—at least one in which they played a role. I am an emotional mess at Easter Vigil as I witness the humility and desire on the faces and in the posture of the elect who are actively responding to their invitation (even more so, if I have been lucky enough to learn about that journey in some way).

On the other hand, I treasure the fact that I was claimed for Christ long before I was able to do it for myself. I am grateful for the grace, the guides I’ve been given, and the foundation ‘ever ancient, ever new’ that lays too-big a framework, one that necessitates growing into. Being on the lookout for the Reign of God which is already present and not yet come is a lot to ask of anyone—infant or otherwise. The two baptismal experiences are distinct, one no better than another, yet we each have a conversion that is constantly at work within us whether we have grown up in a church or have been ignited with new zeal.

***

Matthew’s Gospel today is also about timing and not knowing what (or whom) is coming. St. Matthew urges his audience to ‘stay awake’ through the not knowing, when we will be called upon to welcome the Christ— in hopes that we might be found attending diligently to both the invitations we have received and the vocations we have been called to. Sometimes this means the less glamorous long-haul, other times it means immediate readiness.

Today is the day I was baptized 33 years ago. I remember nothing of it, and feel a little disappointed about that. I have of course heard stories about it and have been to the church since then. To my delight and amusement, my dear college friend (and once fellow environmental studies major), is now the Pastor of that parish.

But that was before I honestly came to terms with the gifts I had been given and the course load I should be taking, and how perhaps I was meant to be engaging with more people—fewer trees. Before my heart had been broken by folks living on the margins, and before I worked in young adult ministry or began writing, or raising babies.

Aren’t these sorts of discoveries exactly what is meant by the phrase: “God draws straight with crooked lines?”  My priest friend is a campout-leading, bee-keeping pastor in the North woods—two charisms, one fiat. Seemingly dormant seeds planted, geminate right on time. (Whether or not we are aware). These are the details or our stories, and all of them are laden with significance.

We know it isn’t about whose got great stories; only how we live the stories we have been given. The Christian person should be in a continual state of conversion, or we run the risk of becoming stale, irrelevant. Sometimes the most intriguing stories of conversion are of those who have been plodding along faithfully and have come to a different/deeper/more specific place of living than the one from which they began.

Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

***

Tonight over dinner I will re-light the candle, the light of Christ, given to me to be kept burning; a practice I’ve only recently begun. I will marvel with the knowledge that I have been claimed and that my participation in this faith story is asked of me as actively today as it was 33 years ago. There is no passivity in this invitation—there never was.

Benedictine Vows Part 1: Conversatio Morum

I recently read a blog post that stated (in part), “change is the only constant in the universe.”  That got me thinking about my vows as a Benedictine monk and about how my vows are different from those of the Franciscans, Dominicans and countless other religious communities who take vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience,” or as a Franciscan long ago put it to me: “no money, no honey, no job.”  This article will be the first of three that will unpack what the Benedictine vows are and what differentiates us from our brothers and sisters in consecrated life whose vows are a later development of what St. Benedict prescribed for his monks and nuns in the 6th century.  The Benedictine vows are obedience, stability and conversatio morum, and the topic for this article is the vow of conversatio the because it lines up well with the idea that “change is the only constant in the universe.”  

Change is everywhere but remains a perennial riddle of human existence.  The ancient Greeks wrestled with this and in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus, “the philosopher of change,” opined that permanence is an illusion:  “Everything changes and nothing remains still . . . and . . . you cannot step into the same river twice.”   You go into a river, come out, and go into it again, but what you are now immersed in is different than what you experienced by your previous foray into the water because what you first walked into is by now already down-stream.  I am presently in a different reality than I was in not long before. So, for Heraclitus and to many in our present age, permanence is an illusion.  All is change.  

One hundred fifty years after Heraclitus was Aristotle took up this topic in his Metaphysics where he addressed the question, “how much of the acorn is left in the oak tree?”  His  answers to such philosophical questions were further developed by Socrates and Plato, who enlarged on their predecessors’ understandings of man’s place in the cosmos.  Aristotle’s answer to the “acorn in the oak tree” question employs terms such as “actuality, potentiality, telos, material cause and formal cause,”  and is far too technical for this article.   For our purposes, let us accept  that in our own age, we still have to wrestle with the ancient question about man’s place in a world constantly in motion.

If all is change, then on a personal level, one can ask, “am I the same person I was last year? Five years ago? Ten years ago? At my baptism?  Especially for one who professes belief in Jesus Christ: am I growing in my true identity as a son or daughter of God?  Or, am I living a lie, allowing myself to be conformed to every whim and temptation of my fallen nature?  To borrow the marketing slogan for a popular sports shoe and clothing company, do I “Just do it” and then rationalize my actions as not all that bad because everyone’s doing it?  Who am I hurting anyway?  Don’t be a prude!  This isn’t as bad as this that or the other that is much worse! But then the Holy Spirit brings to mind the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:19, 25) These words bring us to pray Psalm 51:4 “against You alone have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done,” and as Catholics we make our way to confession!

What does this tell us about change and St. Benedict’s vows?  If change is constant, then I, too, can change my ways and strive for holiness.  St. Benedict knew this and for this reason, he gave us conversatio morum, a vow that is less a promise and more of a “rubric.”  It is an act of the will that says, “I want my life to change” by conforming to the disciplines and customs that have developed over the centuries of Christian monastic practice.  But conversatio morum is not limited to consecrated religious.  Anyone who takes the spiritual life seriously can benefit from traditional monastic practices such as praying the Liturgy of the Hours, practicing lectio divina (divine reading),  praying the Rosary or by setting aside time each day for silent contemplation.  Each day I can make a change to go deeper in my prayer life so that I might grow more open to my true self.

Our monastic observances and pious devotions set us apart from “the rest of the world,” and we live a life as is summed up in Acts 2:42 when the early Church were those who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  That aptly describes the life in the monastery.  Our way of life is distinctive and radically different from what one finds “in the world.”  This is why, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is so popular.  If you have not heard of this book, David Brooks writing in the New York Times describes it as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher writes about the societal change that has been taking place since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and argues that we are not all that different from people in 6th century Italy when Benedict first fled Rome to live in a cave.  In this flight from the world (“fuga mundi” in Latin), Benedict was following the ancient monks of the Eastern desert tradition, who were themselves following Jesus in John 17:14 when he said, “I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.   St. Paul takes up this idea in Romans 12:2 when he says that we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s], that [we] may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  To be transformed, then is to change.  But is change indeed the “only constant in the universe?” Before answering that question we will have to reflect on  the Benedictine vow of stability that will help us answer that question.

 

Christ, My Other

How do you know who you are? From the moment we are born, we take in clues around us that help shape who we are. We learn that our mother will feed and nurture us and that our father will protect us. Our perspectives continue to be shaped by the language and culture in which we grow up. And, as we mature, we take on a belief system, moral, religious, political, etc., that continues to shape the way in which we interact with the world. All of these aspects shape our identity. Still, it continues to morph through the different stages of life, as we encounter new people and ideas, and as we have new experiences. If our identity as an individual continues to change, one might ask, “Then, who am I?” Thankfully, we as Christians have a sure answer to that question, which can be found in Christ Jesus.

The philosophical school of phenomenology provides a background through which we can understand where our identity comes from. Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century French philosopher, describes a relationship between the self and, what he calls, “the Other” in his book Being and Nothingness. The self has a being for-itself, or his own self-defined identity, and a being-for-Others, how others in the world “gaze” on him. The Other’s gaze objectifies the self and defines the self by how the Other perceives him from the outside. To an extent, the self’s subjectivity is denied as he becomes an object of the Other. And, the self can start to believe and take on the identity defined by the Other.

When based on the whims of the gaze of the Other, our character can be very fluid. In his article “Sartre, Kafka & Buber On Identity,” Stephen Small describes how:

It is arguably the case that we know ourselves largely by what others say and think about us. We are not funny if silence follows our telling jokes. We are not handsome if most people do not find us attractive. We are not tall if others tower over us. Others become the metric by which we are measured.

Contrarily, the view of the Other can boost our self-esteem. We think we are the best among our peers when we get a singular, positive comment from our boss. Or, we may think that we are a great athlete, just because we win a single game.

No matter whether these perceptions are completely true or not, our being-for-Others can strongly influence what we believe about our being for-itself. We can easily fall into trying to fit the desires of others, whether that be physically, emotionally, ideologically, or morally. This trend is very evident in modern society, which portrays exaggerated, idealized images of the physically fit, the hipster, or the social activist, and pressures everyone to fit into this mold. But, if we all modify our being for-itself to follow this one image, we become subjected to the rule of societal trends, and we lose who we are really meant to be as individuals. St. Paul urges us: “[d]o not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We cannot find our genuine self in the ever-changing society.

So, where can we find our being for-itself, as it truly is? That comes from our Creator. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, book X, profoundly proclaims

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but I outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made

I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

They held me back far from you,

those things which would have no being,

were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;

you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;

you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;

I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

He emphasizes how the outside world lead him astray, and how Christ is the Other who truly knows and fulfills him. Once St. Augustine moved interiorly, he encountered the One who knows him infinitely more than any Other in the world. Likewise, by introspecting, we are not forced to be objectified by Others in the world; instead, we can enter into dialogue with and learn from our omnipotent Creator. 

It is He who can fulfill our identity. There are numerous biblical examples of Him doing so before, including: Abram becoming Abraham, or Simon becoming Peter. Not only did Christ give them a new name, but he gave them a new purpose, and a great one at that! St. Catherine of Sienna tells us that “if you be who you are meant to be, you will set the world ablaze.” By letting Christ be our Other, and basing our being for-itself on our identity as children of God, we will become the best version of ourselves. Additionally, the attractive nature of our Christian comportment will inspire our neighbors to make Christ their Other.

Saints Who Knew How to Adventure

To be a saint doesn’t mean you have to be lame, rigid, and secluded all of the time - though there are many times when reverence is the appropriate response to God. To be a saint, however, does mean you fully live the adventure that God has placed in your life. In the life of most every saint, even in one as sweet and gentle as Therese of Lisieux, as we will see, there has been a holy recklessness, a sense of adventure, and a great cosmic mission. The saints are the ones that teach us about the adventure that the Church has for us. Today, I’d like to point to some adventures God might have for us if we decide to follow Him more recklessly in the examples from these three saints: Gabriel Possenti, Francis Xavier, and Therese of Lisieux.

 

Gabriel Possenti

Francis Possenti, born in Assisi on March 1, 1838, was seriously ill as a child, and many illnesses recurred throughout his life. As a young man, he grew up to be a superb horseman, hunter, and excellent marksman. Francesco Possenti had been the fanciest dresser in town as well as the best dancer. Engaged to two girls at the same time and a great party-goer, he caught the attention of many people in his day, especially women.

During his school years, he became very sick, Mary came to him in a vision, and he promised  that if he got better, he would dedicate his life to God. St. Gabriel Possenti got better and forgot about it. He got sick a second time, had another vision, and made the same promise, but again got well and forgot his promise. During a church procession a great banner of Our Lady, Help of Christians, was being carried. The eyes of Our Lady looked straight at him and he heard the words: "Keep your promise." Shaken and in fear of his soul, he remembered his promise, changed his life completely, and entered the Passionists.

 

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Given his lifestyle, he shocked his family by announcing after his graduation that he was going to become a Passionist monk. No one believed him and expected him back within a few weeks. He stayed in the monastery, to their disbelief.  One day Garibaldi's mercenaries swept down through Italy ravaging villages. As the marauders attacked, the monks prayed in the chapel and Possenti, who took the name Gabriel, heard a young woman screaming in terror. Not about to allow the assailants to do any harm to a woman, he genuflected, left the chapel, approached the man, and pulled the gun out of the marauder's holster and held it to his head until he freed the woman.

After freeing a young woman from a would-be rapist, St. Gabriel Possenti confronted the onrushing brigands waving revolvers. To demonstrate his excellence in marksmanship, he fired at a lizard that happened to be running across the road and blew its head off it with one shot. After this, he was able to take command of the situation and ran the entire band of mercenaries out of town. Not one human was harmed by Possenti while he saved the city.

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Those who were with Gabriel when he died on February 27, 1862 of tuberculosis reported that at the moment of death, he sat up in bed and his face became radiant as he reached out to an otherwise unseen figure that was entering the room. It was the opinion of his spiritual director, Father Norbert that Saint Gabriel had seen the Virgin Mary at the very moment of his death. He is remembered for his deep veneration for the Mother of Sorrows and his unwavering patience throughout his deadly disease. In 1908 he was beatified and canonized in 1920. He is the patron of Catholic youth in Italy. His grave still attracts many pilgrims.

Now, if Gabriel Possenti doesn’t respond to the call that God has for him, that adventure never happens and that town would not have been saved from all of the bad things that the marauders would have done. St. Gabriel’s yes to God (through Mary) changed the lives of countless people. And he was hardly in his 20s at this point. Makes me wonder what I have been doing with my life and why I might keep saying know to the adventures God has for me.

 

Francis Xavier

The next saint is Francis Xavier. He was born into a noble family in the kingdom of Navarre (a part of modern day Spain and France). The king of Aragon invaded Navarre when Francis was six years old and the fighting continued for the next 18 years. Francis’ family was much embroiled in the fighting, but to get away from it, Francis enrolled in the University of Paris. He became well known for his athleticism, excelling at the high jump. Being away from his family, the party scene was commonplace for Francis and he had many aspirations to gain worldly success. But there he also met Ignatius of Loyola.

Castle of the Xavier Family now under the care of the Jesuits

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Ignatius worked on Francis for years to get him to become more religious. Eventually, after Francis’ roommate had left to study for the priesthood, he found Ignatius as one of his only companions. On August 15th, 1534, Ignatius, Francis, and six others met in the crypt of a church just outside of Paris and made vows of poverty, chastity, obedience to the pope, and to missionary work in the Holy Land and other places around the world.

When it comes to missions around the world, it is impossible to overestimate the credit which Francis Xavier deserves. With the possible exception of St. Paul, the Church has not seen a missionary like him. His first task: bring the Gospel to the newly established territories in India. This was not an easy assignment because the “Christian” settlers in India were causing scandal for the message of Gospel because of their immoral actions with the locals. Francis Xavier also was pigeon-holed by the caste system in India. The Brahmin class tried to keep him from interacting with his heart's true desire, the poorest of the poor. Francis Xavier followed his heart and spent most of his time learning the culture and language of the people, tending to the poor, and teaching them the Christian message, often times lambasting the actions of the Portuguese settlers. Because of Francis’ adventurous efforts, however, Catholicism has a strong presence in India still to this day.

To see the real adventure in Francis’ life, we must look at his work in Japan in particular. Francis eventually made his way through many island territories, China, and found his way to the people of Japan. There Francis established missions and over the course of two years gained a number of Japanese to the Catholic faith and the Jesuit order. After establishing Catholicism in Japan, he left to go back to India leaving behind others to run the communities of Japan. In 1620, less than one hundred years after Francis established Christianity there, the Empire banned Catholicism and killed all the priests and attempted to stamp out what Francis has built. Communication was lost with all the Catholics in Japan until 1865. In that year, it was discovered that a small group of Japanese had continued ritual baptism, belief in clerical celibacy, the primacy of the pope, and devotion to the Blessed Mother. For nearly 250 years, because of “the adventures of St. Francis Xavier” and the way he built the community there, Japan had retained a Catholic presence in secret, unknown both to the Japanese government and to the rest of the Church.

 

 

Therese of Lisieux

God is not calling people to be a flock of sissies. In some ways, we are to be more like lions than sheep. Speaking of that contrast, St. Therese of Lisieux is an example of a saint who seems very gentle but actually had the heart of a lion. While it’s true it hard to see a lot of adventure in Therese’s active life, there are many quotes from her Story of a Soul that demonstrate her adventurous attitude. To start, in discovering her vocation, Therese finds what her adventure within the Church is, and in a real way it is every human being’s adventure. She says, “Then, overcome by joy, I cried, 'Jesus, my love. At last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.” For Therese, the great adventure of this life is learning how to love in all the little ways. We see this clearly in this famous line that was often referenced by Mother Teresa when she says, “You know well that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions,nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”

Therese sees this life not as a destination, but a journey of learning how to love. One day, she desires to be with Love forever, when the adventure is over. Referring to this life she says, “The world's thy ship and not thy home.” For Therese, the journey of this life is holiness, which is found in the perfection of love. To perfect love, one must be well aware of God’s desire for his or her life. “Holiness consists simply in doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be,” says Therese. In her longing for God’s will, we see one of the most adventurous things that she has to offer us and her reckless desire for nothing shy of everything God wants of her. Even despite the ways others annoy and distract her, she endeavors to love in all things. When the trials are heavy, she reminds herself and all of us that “when one loves, one does not calculate.” If that isn’t the idea of adventure that burns in your heart, you are very much different than Therese and myself. What greater adventure is there than reckless abandon for the highest cause? Tolkien, Lewis, even Twain, Melville, and DeFoe made their careers based on the same movement of the heart: to abandon yourself to life’s greatest endeavors.

For Therese the adventure is to sail the ship of this world in a way that leads to heaven. The way to stay on course is to always be solid in prayer, even if it is challenging. She says, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” Therese was adventurous even in her approach to prayer, seeing that the process brings trial and joy which occur simultaneously.

Finally, Therese always tied her life’s adventure to the adventure of the cross. “To dedicate oneself as a Victim of Love is not to be dedicated to sweetness and consolations; it is to offer oneself to all that is painful and bitter, because Love lives only by sacrifice and the more we would surrender ourselves to Love, the more we must surrender ourselves to suffering,” she says. She understood the great battle within her and around her. A battle all of us are called to engage in still today. She says, “Each time that my enemy would provoke me to combat, I behave as a gallant soldier.” Even in the heart of sweet Therese there was the presence of a fierce and unruly desire to follow Christ in his Church. If only more of us would find the same adventure in our lives as sweet, small, gentle, and simple Therese found in hers!

There are so many other saints that have lived lives of adventure from St. John the Baptist, St. Paul the Apostle to St. John Paul II, the mountain loving, soccer playing, skier pope that changed the face of Catholicism and instigated the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The point is, to be a Catholic saint means to be totally awesome. Jesus’ awesome adventure was the cross. And as Hebrews 12 states, it was because of the joy that was set in front of him that he endured the cross. The joy for Jesus was that one day he gets to be with you forever. Even though he was God and had everything, he went on a great adventure and gave away everything he had just so you could understand how much he wants to be with you. He has now asked us to follow him. To live an adventure. The Church needs great and adventurous saints to set the stage for the third millennium. It can be us. If not us, then who will it be? In our own unique way, we can live the adventure of following Jesus and becoming the great saint God intended us to be.

Traveling Between the Lines

Travel. It’s trendy. To say you’re a traveler in modern culture is a pithy way to say you are a cultured, experienced, tolerant, interesting human being whose life is fun and exciting and whose thoughts are worth listening to.

And to a certain degree that is true. Travel does wonderful things for the soul. There are images and graphics all over the Internet with the quote from St. Augustine that “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” But simply to have read something isn’t enough. As Catholics, we should strive to be excellent in everything that we do. It is not enough to read great books. In order to gain any wisdom, we must read them well, with attention and humility. It is the same with traveling. In order to gain wisdom and experience truth in our travels, we must travel well.

How do we do that? In many ways, we do the same things we do to read well. Here are four tips from an English major on traveling well.

1)   Step outside yourself.

We read books to gain something we do not already have. In order to do so we have to let our mind enter into situations we have not been in before, or follow characters who react differently to their surroundings than we do. It isn’t just about the characters we connect with, but also the ones we clash with. We have to wrap our minds around ideas that are not our own. We gain a greater understanding of human nature and all it’s nuances. In traveling, unfamiliar surroundings make it easy to feel like we are stepping outside of ourselves, because we are physically out of our comfort zones. This can create the illusion that we have actually stepped outside of ourselves. We must make a conscious effort to connect with our surroundings, even when they don’t immediately pull us in.

2)   Compare.

When you compare parallel ideas from different books they provide insight into each other. When we find things that are similar to home in a foreign place and then examine the nuances, we learn more not only about the place we are in, but the place we came from as well. In good travel, as well as reading well, our senses are heightened and we notice smaller details than we do in everyday life. When we compare these to something more familiar they open secrets about our daily life and ourselves that have been hiding right before our eyes.

3)   Read between the lines.

A good book is never just a story. The story is crafted to reveal certain truths about the world, but if we don’t pay attention to what is not obvious, we can easily miss them. As a Christian, travel should never be about escaping reality or collecting fun stories. God usually has something to teach us when we travel, but it’s up to us to be attentive to it. Be extra prayerful when you travel. This also involves being prepared. If you spend some time learning about the historical context of the places you go, your ability to read between the lines will be greatly heightened. Read a little bit of history before you go anywhere.

4)   Allow it to end.

Sometimes you don’t want a good book to end. You don’t want to leave the experience behind. But if you never close the back cover, you can’t process it in it’s completeness. The conclusion of a book can radically change the experience of the book as a whole. Travel has a designated end date for a reason. When it’s time to go home you are given a unique gift to contemplate the trip in it’s entirety, and to incorporate what you have learned into your daily life. Your day to day can be transformed when you return from a well-traveled trip, but if you try to make the experience last longer than it ought, you do a disservice to the trip and to your daily life.

Traveling is one of the greatest gifts we have been given. Embracing new people and places stretches our hearts and minds and brings growth we usually can hardly imagine. But simply changing our location isn’t enough to travel. We must read well every adventure in order for our travels to truly make us wiser.

Tasteless

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Matthew 5:13

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:6

We live in a world that’s all about flavor: flavorful food, flavorful conversation and flavorful entertainment. Salt is a primary seasoning; one valued throughout the ages that imparts a lot of flavor. When food is under-salted, it’s bland and tasteless. It’s the same way when we let morals slip, when we forget who we are and what we stand for, we too, become tasteless.

We’ve all seen examples of tasteless humor. It’s everywhere we look: plastered on billboards, projecting from TV and computer screens, staring at us from magazine covers and pages. We’ve even encountered tasteless people: perhaps the man cussing out his wife in a store parking lot, or that woman who always makes vulgar and insulting innuendos about past dating partners.

However, it’s all to easy to become tasteless ourselves. We lose salt and cease seasoning our lives with truth and goodness. It can happen in our lives, in subtle ways or big ways. When we don’t stand up for what is right, or maintain silence when someone challenges what we believe in, give into peer pressure to accept hook up culture, or gossip about a coworker, we slowly begin to lose our flavor. When we lose our flavor, when we slip into moral ambiguity, we don’t stand for anything, and we become like everything else in this broken world: dry, colorless and tasteless like the dust we walk on.

It’s ironic that in a world obsessed with flavor that we’re surrounded by everything tasteless. By trying to imbue scandalous and exciting elements into everything we see, the world has become tasteless in every sense of the word. Our Christian behavior and beliefs seem shocking because they’re so radically different than what we’ve seen around us, because although we’re at odds with tasteless structures, we definitely have a flavor. There’s no mistaking the flavor of salt - there should be no mistaking what we stand for in our culture. And there’s no mistaking that flavor is what makes life worth living. That’s why everyone pursues it culinary and other wise and why Jesus, more than 2,000 years ago, made a parable about the flavor of salt.

Also, Saint Paul advises us to “season our words with salt,” to imbue what we say with kindness and truth that can only come from Christ. What are the ways that we can bring flavor to our lives as Christians? Whether it’s an added prayer time, holding our tongue when tempted to snap at someone or gossip, or even respectfully explaining what we believe in when challenged, there are many little ways to bring salt into our lives.

Every time I’ve read the parable of Christians being the salt of the earth, I’ve been struck by Jesus’ blunt language. If you’re not being the salt of the earth, if you’re not living a Christian lifestyle, if you lose your “flavor,” Jesus makes no qualms about saying we’ll be trampled underfoot. “Trampled” is a strong word, but flavorless salt is basically dust anyways.